Wild beavers to return to English rivers after 400 years with legal protection as native species

After numerous reintroductions to enclosed sites, beavers are to be given their freedom for the first time in centuries

Harry Cockburn
Environment Correspondent
Monday 23 August 2021 16:36
Beavers are back and they're here to stay after 'groundbreaking' government decision

Beavers are back.

Around 400 years after humans wiped out beavers across the country, the species has been successfully brought back to specific sites in Britain, and following extensive monitoring, the government is now set to designate them a native species and allow them to repopulate in the wild.

The native species designation will mean the animals are legally protected and it will therefore be an offence to capture, kill, disturb or injure them or damage breeding sites or resting places without a licence from Natural England.

According to The Times, a public consultation launched this week will set out the criteria for allowing what the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) will describe as “the cautious release of more beavers into the wild”.

The decision follows a study on the River Otter in Devon, the only site in England where beavers have been living in the wild, since around 2008, following either an unlicensed or accidental release.

After the beavers gave birth to kits in 2014, the government had planned to remove the animals, but The Devon Wildlife Trust and other organisations instead suggested studying the impact of the beavers.

The government soon changed its attitude, with Defra hailing the beavers as rapidly bringing a “wealth of benefits” to the areas they inhabit – increasing biodiversity and reducing flood risks.

The presence of the beavers was found to create new wetland habitat, improve water quality, reduce surface runoff, which can cause flooding, and boost populations of fish, amphibians and water voles.

Elsewhere, beaver introductions have been carefully managed in large enclosed spaces.

The Beaver Trust, which campaigns for the reintroduction of beavers in the UK told The Independent it was “absolutely delighted”, about the government’s decision to designate the animals as a native species.

“We see this as an important step forward for the species’ recovery in Britain,” said the trust’s Eva Bishop.

“Beavers are a protected species across Europe and, given their existing protection in Scotland, it seems logical that this will be extended across other parts of Britain.

“We hope to see beavers accepted back in the countryside like any other native wild species, particularly as they have a role to play in nature’s recovery and British wildlife resilience in the climate emergency.”

She added: “Beavers are a nature-based solution that can help turn Britain’s rivers into nature recovery networks, slowing the flow of water through the landscape. Whilst they are not a silver bullet, their benefits in many catchments will be achievable at a relatively low cost.”

Beavers were hunted to extinction in the UK by the beginning of the 16th century due to demand for their meat, fur and scent glands.

But numerous reintroductions have taken place, or are forthcoming, across the UK, including in Scotland, Wales, London, the Forest of Dean, North Yorkshire, Devon, Somerset, Essex, Norfolk, West Sussex and Dorset.

The Independent has contacted Defra for comment.

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